“I got to thinking ’bout the history of human nature
While this instrumental, play
Then I realized something that made me wonder if revolution was really ever the way”
— J. Cole, High for Hours
There are many factors that make this world turn in the way it does. Friendly factors, foreign factors, factors we can’t even comprehend due to the constrictions of science and society.
In a world where information is everywhere, knowledge and understanding seem to be in short supply. With a warming world and warring economies our planet can seem a little on the heavy side as of late and opinions about all of these stories fly around the internet like starlings around Rome. So what can we do?
Here at The Clueless Conscience, we try to draw on the vast amount of knowledge we have at our fingertips today and start discussion about subjects we think are interesting or that we think deserve further discussion in society. This ranges from a closer look at historical happenings to reviews of music and art, all the way through to current affairs and policy. While not free from opinion, we try our best to find all the relevant details and keep the language light so that you can make up your own mind about the subject and give us and the community your feedback. The focus is on expanding understanding in order to think more critically about the world we live in.
In the not-too-distant past a broad knowledge of many subjects was something people traveled continents for. The great minds of ancient Greece traveled to Africa and the land of Kemet (now Egypt) to learn all things about the world they inhabited, and yet now it seems a thirst for knowledge has been replaced by a hunger for the trappings of life.
We are about free and open discussion. First and foremost. Keep Learning.
Given the recent protests in India over farming reforms implemented by Prime Minister Narenda Modi, I have decided to publish an essay I penned two years ago. It discusses how from the time of the British East India Company, business has led India by the stick without a carrot, with the situation only looking to get worse with proposed trade agreementson the horizon such as RCEP. Banking and flight capital have always been prevalent and the recent introduction of laws making it easier for Big Business to monopolise and abuse trade will worsen this.I send my best wishes to the Sikh farmers opposing the introduction of these laws.
Control over India and her resources, under Britain and before that the Moghuls, has been much discussed and relatively well documented. However, much of this history is the subject of a cultural negligence as discussed by Edward Saidin his book Orientalism and further expanded upon by Arvind Sharma in The Ruler’s Gaze. This systematic deconstruction of non-western cultures has become more of a focal point for current research as Britain’s imperialism dwindles, to be replaced by other controlling influences. To many, control over India did not end in 1947 after the withdrawal of the colonialists. Historians Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee talk about how “imperialist exploitation, and the consequent underdevelopment did not cease”, even after British rule officially ended in India. In their paper Imperialism and Growth of Indian Capitalism in the 20th Century, they examine how control of the former colony was held through more indirect means than land colonisation and governmental rule. Instead “a greater and more blatant direct appropriation of surplus through currency manipulations, forced loans, large military expenditures and numerous other unilateral transfers” allows non-domestic entities to influence and benefit from India’s own industry, ultimately undermining India’s own sovereignty. In more recent times the appearance of multinational corporations and trade agreements such as RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – between South Asian and Pacific countries) are arguably just as damaging as the East India Company was before th British Rule. In this short essay I aim to present a historical timeline showing the progression from imperial rule to industrial exploitation, focussing mainly on India’s ever-important yet consistently neglected agricultural sector and how this has ultimately led to India’s situation today; one of social unrest and protest.
To understand what has drawn settlers and colonists to India we must look back to the Indian Raj and Mughal empire. At the time of Mughal rule, India made up 25% of the world’s GDP. A large proportion of this was generated through textiles and agriculture, and colonists were keen to get a piece of this pie with French, Portuguese, Dutch and British settlers arriving on the India’s East coast in order to set up trading stations. The importance of trading routes through the Indies to China for spices and other valuable commodities for European powers also increased the need for settlement on India’s coasts throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Through a series of deals with local landowners and the defeat of the French (the British main rival for control of trade in India) in the Seven Years War, the East India Company established themselves as a greater ruler over India than their counterparts, even the Mughals. By the mid nineteenth century the East India Company (EIC) controlled the majority of India and its exports, using taxes collected from the Indian populace to buy Indian goods, essentially forcing Indians to work, create, farm and pay for goods they do not even use themselves. These goods were usually then exported to Britain to be sold at a higher price for the benefit of the British merchants and empire.
This seemingly unscrupulous use of ruling power led to the 1857 rebellion in which the Indian people rose up and asked for independence from the suffocating trade deals of the East India Company. Instead of sovereign freedom however, the British Empire decided India was not ready to rule itself and the British Raj took over from the East India Company. Under the sovereign rule of Britain, Indian resources were abused in a similar fashion to the EIC, although it was better hidden . In the words of Angus Maddison, “British imperialism was more pragmatic than that of other colonial powers [such as France, Portugal and the Netherlands]. It’s motivation was economic not evangelical”, and this is seen in the way the British Raj ruled India. While religion and conversion to christianity was certainly an agenda to some within the prevailing establishment, the achievement of a “monopolistic trading position” and a “regime of free trade” were the main goals of British rule in India, a point raised by Angus Maddison in his 1971 book Class structure and Economic Growth: India & Pakistan Since the Moghuls. While other European nations were concentrating on trying to convert the indigenous peoples of their colonies to the teachings of God, Britain concentrated on locking down India’s resource value to The City of London, all while appearing to give India greater trading freedoms than under the EIC. After the revolt of 1857, Indians were allowed to sell to other countries themselves, something unheard of under the EIC who took control over the sales of all exportable goods. Under the British Raj producers were allowed to export their own goods directly albeit for special Council Bills not rupees. These special Council Bills were needed by countries or merchants wanting to buy and import Indian goods and could only be obtained from The City of London for silver or gold. Once these bills were exchanged for goods, Indian merchants then cashed them in for rupees, collected during the taxing of the Indian populace. So the method of paying for Indian goods by the country’s own money was still in place, as it was during the time of the EIC, it had just been made more complex to hide its existence. A common occurrence in the practices of the City of London. This method of economic dominance allowed India to appear as a seemingly wealthy exporter of goods, even though almost all of the monetary value of these goods ended up in the hands of the British Government as flight capital, a sum recently calculated by renowned economist Utsa Patnaik as nearly $45 trillion; 17 times the annual GDP of Britain today [*At time of writing in 2018].
After 1947 and the withdrawal of Britain from Indian governance, private banks became increasingly prominent. As did their failures, with 361 banks failing between 1947 and 1955; a rate of 45 a year, leaving their then-uninsured investors out of pocket. The agricultural sector, despite being the lifeblood of India, was largely ignored in this post-independence period by investors. As a way to help revitalise the farming industry, the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru started the first of India’s 5 year plans in 1951. Modelled closely on Stalin’s plans of 1928, these reforms aimed to increase growth and to make more efficient use of the large amount of land available to India. With a new plan introduced every 5 years, the first mostly dealt with problems associated with tenancy and cultivation, as large areas of fallow land were stuck under large holdings and not being cultivated. By the time his daughter, Indira Gandhi, was in power in the early 80’s, the focus was on maintaining food security. Despite the various land reforms a healthy agrarian sector was still far from realised, partly due to what Patnaik calls the “robber baron capitalism” that was “rampant” in India. Loans were directed away from agriculture, toward industry and business; the owners of which also held large stakes in the country’s banks.
This was recognised by Indira Gandhi when she took power and in her second term, she promised to nationalise the banks, giving a greater percentage of loans to India’s struggling agriculture sector. In 1969 Gandhi achieved this, nationalising the top 14 banks and handing control of 70% of the nation’s bank deposits to the Indian government as well as any operations available with that capital. Using this new power Gandhi increased the accessibility of the banks in rural areas, covering a huge proportion of the Indian population. Pre-nationalisation only 17.6% of bank branches were in rural areas, post-nationalisation this rose to 58%. This was a massive step toward aiding the struggling agriculture sector as access to advice and the capital for loans was more readily available, and this was reflected in the increased amount of loans (9.1%) given out to farmers in 1976-77. This did result in a bump in agriculture production, as this increase in loans allowed the Green Revolution to take place, with India becoming practically self-sufficient in the mid 70’s before drought unfortunately hit the country. However “big industry and business continued to dominate the credit profiles of nationalised banks” leading some critics of Indira Gandhi’s policies to claim that the newly nationalised banks “failed to energise the ‘priority sectors’” like agriculture to the extent she had promised. Other critics decry her moves as beneficial at all to the poor whom she hoped to help, instead placing money and control into “the hands of rich peasants who produced mainly for the export market” and aided in the stockpiling of commodities such as food grain. While I think Indira Gandhi’s motives and actions were successful in handing some control back to the large rural population it cannot be ignored that agriculture, while improved, did not become healed in the time before Gandhi’s assassination.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 India began to descend into economic recession as imports swelled and trade deficits grew on borrowed money. This borrowing snowballed, eventually culminating in the economic crisis of 1991. This, in turn, led to India’s acceptance of a $500 million bailout from the IMF and WTO, on the condition that some laws were passed and policies put in place that pushed for “economic liberalisation”. These laws allowed deregulation of the markets, lower duties and taxes on Indian goods and a massive increase in foreign direct investment (FDI), allowing for more of a market economy. This very quickly increased the proportion of private companies with an influence over domestic services and business, including agriculture. By increasing the amount of FDI in the country in this way, it effectively undercut the reforms made by Indira Gandhi when she nationalised the country’s banks. While the banks and their deposits remained virtually state controlled and regulated, foreign influence was now and still is allowed to be directly injected into the Indian economy by the businesses themselves rather than through private banks, as was the case pre-nationalisation. Another of Indira Gandhi’s reforms to fall from policy was the increased agricultural subsidies, which had been decreasing steadily since her assassination and dwindled further since the reforms of 1991. This has directly led to the situation seen in India today, where farmers are marching from across the country to New Delhi in order to protest increasing volatility in the country’s agricultural sector. One of the only agriculture-related statistics to see an increase in the past two decades is the rate of suicide among farmers. Caused by a mix of bad growing seasons, low or negligible subsidies and borrowing from unscrupulous lenders charging exorbitant amounts on loans. The latter being a situation caused by institutional credit agencies “not responding adequately to demand” as well as poor access.
The emergence of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is casting a dark shadow on the future of Indian agriculture. First proposed at the turn of the millenium, member nations began negotiations in November 2012 in response to the United States attempting to put together the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) two years before. While the TPP was ultimately dropped by the US in 2016, RCEP has undergone 24 rounds of negotiations, led by China and the US’s backing, with aims to increase trade links between many of the countries around the Pacific and Indo-Pacific.
However a closer look at how it operates and its aims show a very different picture. Far from seeking to aid the growth of sovereign nations involved with RCEP, big business seems to be at the fore. Many of the clauses being discussed aid the privatisation of services as well as blocking any action by governments that protect domestic services or products. Almost all of the discussions take place without any input from the governments that will be affected and the actual content of the talks is a closely guarded secret. The only public knowledge of what goes on in these talks comes from regular online leaks. Some of these leaked documents contain draft clauses that are likely to be implemented, one of which is the “services chapter draft”. This clause proposes that foreign service supplies are given the same degree of access to land ownership as domestic suppliers, including the ability to own farmland, an already thinly spread commodity among indians. Such clauses could be modified with an exception for (eg.) farmland but this would be subject to negotiation and would have to be agreed to by all parties, something that is highly unlikely to happen; a view held by the many RCEP critics. Policies like those being put forward by RCEP in the words of economist Surupta Gupta “could seriously aggravate land grabbing” by big business, displacing domestic business and “sabotaging [the] agrarian reform processes [countries like India] have spent so long cultivating”.
The view that India has nothing to gain from “opening itself up” is one shared by many prominent critics such as Biswajit Dhar, professor of economics and Jawaharlal Nehru University. The measures proposed by RCEP are “contradictory” to India’s “largely defensive posture” in regards to agriculture and manufacturing. Allowing more market access to countries such as China leaves many of India’s most vital sectors open to exploitation and export, giving the impression of a healthy market while actually seeing minimal returns in the form of GDP. As an example of the premiums RCEP is asking of its members, India Foreign Direct Investment Watch reports that RCEP mandates import duties for its members between 0 and 3%. India’s current duty on industrial goods is 10% on average and 32.5% on agricultural products. Couple a loss of income due to this decreased duty on exports with a foreign service sector within India that can outsource their suppliers and you will undoubtedly see a large loss in national GDP and economic stability, all while India appears to be a huge exporter of goods. Decreased economic stability could lead to further loans being needed from institutions such as the IMF or WTO just for purchase of basic imports as well as in order for services to run as India has in the past, and if any of the loans handed to countries such as Argentina, Ireland or Greece is anything to go by this will lead to a snowballing national debt that looks increasingly impossible to pay off. The Indian government already has to pay back debts to the WTO accrued by farmers, who are too poor to buy new seeds or farming equipment without loans, so an extra burden of debt on top of the current, already rising level, may cripple the country beyond repair, possibly leading to the “crisis of society” or “even a civilisational crisis” that prominent journalist Palagummi Sainath predicts.
These policies suggested by RCEP are already being slipped into Indian law as Narendra Modis ruling BJP government look to introduce more liberal agricultural trade policies. Supposedly to “bring about predictability and enable exports to more markets” with the aim of “doubling farmers income”, the proposed laws are very dangerous given some of the clauses given by RCEP such as the “Ratchet Clause”. The Ratchet Clause means that every time a government make a policy decision or passes a law that aids privatisation or liberalisation, no retroactive action can be taken by said government to undo this. It is now locked in and cannot be reset even to the levels originally agreed upon by RCEP. Any action taken by a government to rectify this could and will most likely end up in an investor-state dispute settlement. Even in cases where sovereign states win these settlements, the money at the disposal of big business means that the legal costs alone could cripple a developing nations economy. RCEP also states that any future concession to a trading partner under a bilateral treaty will also get extended to all RCEP members, known as Most Favoured Nation Forward. Together these two clauses could cause many countries, not just India, to have to open up their domestic markets and privileges to foreign business, stifling domestic growth as the state puts money in to support these businesses, while seeing none of the profit for fear of being sued. One of the more recent policies Modi intends to move on will require India to keep up a certain level of agricultural exports to outside parties, even when domestic need is high. This policy is not just unsound and unfair to the populace that produce the grains being exported, it is also moving away from India’s historically preserving stance of curbing exports in order to keep domestic prices in check. While not yet in place, if actioned and passed, this is a law that liberalises the market and therefore could potentially not be undone under RCEP, even in cases of severe domestic need such as drought. If there were to be a drought, domestic food prices would soar as available grains were earmarked for export instead of domestic sales to the starving population, leading to famine in a country of over 1 billion people.
In 2018 Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party proclaimed that India is now “self-sufficient”, as food-grain production had reached 270.11 million tonnes between 2016-2017, up from 217 million tonnes a decade before. At current estimate, there are 270 million starving people within India’s borders. Poor infrastructure and storage difficulties mean that a vast amount of produce doesn’t get to where it needs to be, instead rotting in huge piles on farmland. The Union Ministry of Agriculture predicted that India’s demand for food grains in 2017 would be 257.7 million tonnes, so if the BJP are correct with their estimates, India’s total production is at 106.8% of demand. Using the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) own leveling system, 80% to 120% production means a country is indeed “self-sufficient”. However with the estimate of production not taking into account the huge amount of wastage, the true percentage of available food grains could well fall nearer or the 80% mark, below which lies “food deficit”. If India is nearing a shortage of food for its own people, are the passing of laws that allow for increased and prioritised export really helping the country?
The “appropriation of surplus” in India by the British Raj is well documented, however it is not over. Economic measures taken in India have helped consolidate what used to be the Brits main source of income into that of the global corporations. The direction of loans post-independence has been toward industries that provide large profit margins and the opportunity for flight capital; something that the agricultural sector doesn’t provide in large quantities. Therefore it has been historically starved of investment, whilst still being expected to provide on a global scale. This has led to a large backlash by domestic industries, especially the agricultural sector. More recently the development of RCEP has shown that, with business interests coming before the well-being of sovereign nations, leading to the same undermining of domestic industry that was seen 150 years ago.
The spread of ideas about our own moral obligation to ourselves and others crops up repeatedly throughout history. It tends to arise in times of disenfranchisement and when power is being consolidated beyond the control of the populace. In the 16th century one man started a movement by refusing to bend to the surrounding system. His words sharpened the minds of many and his refusal to pay taxes to a corrupt power structure saw these freethinkers martyred until the movement became a religion unto itself. While the religion still stands today, the founding principles set 400 years ago have changed from its initial philosophy somewhat. Looking back at the origins of these principles, could we learn from what they achieved?
At the end of the 15th century, religious dogma and governance was reaching new heights and powers. The heavy taxes and decades of austerity imposed on an increasingly penniless population had been pushing people towards the fringes of society until they dropped out or dropped dead. Questions began to arise about the power structures at play and the people at the top of the chain. With vast swathes of land paying dues to a centralised state and little of this money seemingly trickling down to the people, a few thinkers and writers were starting to turn the population against the systems that they found themselves embedded into.
Some of you may recognise this as the state of Europe around this time, with Erasmus and Martin Luther spreading the word of Humanism. The idea that human life could and should be valued above that of religious ideals empowered the members of the population of Europe to think of themselves as more than just tax payers in God’s eyes, stripping power from the Catholic church as it did so.
But where in one place religion withered, religion was born anew elsewhere as a similar spread and subsequent throwing off of societal shackles occurred.
Before the British invasion-by-commerce of the 18th century and subsequent imperial rule in the 19th century that led to the partitioning of it’s most powerful states India was even greater in size than it is now. Both Bangladesh and Pakistan resided within its boundaries, with Pakistan and the north eastern states making up the Punjab, India’s breadbasket and most prosperous region. Due to the fertile soils of the Indus valley and its proximity to the Himalayan foothills it was both rich and beautiful. Both Muslims and Hindus resided side by side with other ethnic minorities creating a diverse patchwork of culture and beliefs.
However, the higher rungs of a rich societal tapestry was not immune to corruption any more than the arguably more monotheistic society of Europe and it was this that was to light the spark of a new religion in the region.
Backhanders and heavy taxation in the northern provinces of India were as rife as they were in Rome and high agricultural taxes saw Punjabi farmers becoming increasingly disenfranchised with local governance. By this period of the early 16th century, many of these landowning farmers in the Indus valley were made up of an ethnic group called Jats. Historically a nomadic people from central Asia, Jats may well be descended from the Indo-Aryans of Persia and ancient Scythia and it’s thought that they are the ancestors of modern gypsies. Eventually some migrated into the fertile Indus Valley in search of a place to settle. Their nomadic lifestyles could also be interpreted as a search for identity between the many ingrained cultures of the region, with both Muslim and Hindu societies requiring class and caste to fall hand-in-hand with religion and civilisation.
But while the place of origin for these nomads may be lost to history, their temperament is not. As early as the 8th century the civilisational stubbornness of Jats is referenced in scripture.
“Resistant to external influence” is how Islamic writers between the 8th and 13th centuries described them. While making up large portions of the workforce and armies across western south Asia for centuries they had continuously curtailed any attempts to shepherd them into any common culture. Their militant stances and unwillingness to bend even led them to later be mentioned in the memoirs of a famous Ruler of Kabul as “troublesome and problematic”. After all, people who didn’t open themselves up to taxation or bribery didn’t make easy subjects.
For their efforts they were classed as outsiders by local governments, the Hindu rulers of the 11th century Punjab designating them “low Shudras” – the lowest caste in Indian society. However a people who were not particularly happy with falling in line in the 11th century were not particularly taken with the idea a couple of centuries later either.
Despite their classification as low caste, the Jats managed to carve out a noble life for themselves in Punjab as farmers, providing food for the local population. By the 16th century, they had miraculously been elevated from low Shudra to low Vaishiyas; or lower middle class. It’s recorded that by this time the Jats owned substantial amounts of land on both sides of the Ravi River, one of the five major tributaries to the Indus River running through the Valley (“Paanj” in Hindi is five, hence Punjab). This acquisition of land meant that some Jats became very prosperous. Even so, this was quite a leap for an ethnic group to make given the rigidity of the caste system, but not all together inconceivable. Given that the Jats were now major suppliers of food to the local Hindu population, it’s unlikely that the Hindus of the area would have wanted to be seen as consuming food created or supplied by their lowest caste.
Despite this elevation, the Jats are not recorded as recognising themselves in the Hindu caste system and for all intents and purposes carried on as outsiders, finding their role in the surrounding society as suppliers rather than participants. They were still largely treated as outsiders, with bureaucracy often working against them, allowing land to be annexed and stolen by well connected members of Muslim or Hindu society. This lack of regard for their well-being encouraged the separation of Jats from the surrounding society and helped foster a further resentment for what they saw as corruption and ill will.
This resentment had only got worse with successive invasions of first the Mangols in the late 1300’s and then finally the Mughals from Afghanistan in the early 1500s. A system of heavy agricultural taxation and military campaigns had given the burgeoning Mughal empire the funds necessary to dream of expansion and it looked towards the rich and fertile lands of Punjab.
The first of the Mughals, Babur, was initially invited to invade the northern provinces of India by a prosperous Muslim politician called Daulat Khan Lodi who sought to cement his own legacy in Lahore. At this time Babur was already a powerful figure, the aforementioned Ruler of Kabul and a direct descendant of both the great Timur and Genghis Khan and had desired a seat in “Hindustan” for some time. However, this invitation by the aspirational Daulat Khan was to be the stepping stone toward the realisation of Babur’s dream rather than Daulat Khan and the start of a 300 year long occupation of the Punjab by the Mughals, as well as a founding pillar for a brand new religion.
The story of this new religion really begins with the return of a young man, Nanak, to his village in Lahore province along the River Ravi. Born about 40 miles from the city of Lahore to a revenue collecting father in a Punjabi farming community, he had seen his fellow countrymen toil in the fields just to suffer the taxation of provincial pen-pushers. A short stint working for his fathers boss, a certain Daulat Khan (although at this time yet to have offered his infamous invitation), as a grain agent had given him further insight into the inner workings of the system he had been born into. Namely a system of corruption and bribery. So, at the age of 27 he took himself away from his village of Talwandi.
In order to gain some perspective on the life he was living and discern more about the life he wanted to lead, he set off towards the middle east. At this time the region spanning the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley had seen successive successful empires. By western accounts the Timurid empire that was to be found at the time of Nanak’s journey was nothing more than the dregs of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, but in reality it was a culture to which many writers and painters, both European and Asian owe a great deal. From the mid 15th to the early 16th century the great court administrator Nizam al-Din Amir Alishir Nava’i, a “humanist par excellence”, was transforming the empire into one of learning and opulence. So much so that he is recorded as being “instrumental” in the spread of Persian literary humanism. Not just across the empire he helped oversee, but “deep into the heart of the Indian subcontinent”.
There among the poetic high literature and great minds of the Persian empire of the time Nanak developed ideas that he chose to bring back with him and build on in his home province of Lahore. Somehow he thought, he would aim to create a new society that was free of the corruption and taxes that were found in the surrounding towns and cities of his homeland. By taking back ownership of their minds, he would encourage people to take back control of their land and resources. A sort of South Asian humanism.
Accounts have been given and books written on the where and when of this young man’s travels, most of them describing four long journeys before his eventual return to his village of birth.
In fact there are thousands of verses of narratives, given the name Janamsakhis, that tell of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak, detailing at length four missionary journeys where he spreads the word of God and Sikhism. However many of these have been written in more recent centuries, posthumously and somewhat hagiographically. The writings most likely to give us a true idea of both the early Gurus life and his original reasoning for starting his new community is the PuratanJanamsakhi. In these first writings, understood to be written around the 16th century or just after (around the time Nanak lived), there is a brief mention of a journey to the Persian west. However they largely focus on the future Gurus early manhood and the founding of his first experimental community after his return from this journey.
Having settled back into Talwandi, the young Nanak had started to draw together some of his fellow villagers to discuss the ideas that he had come across and developed on his travels around the old Persian empire. These ideas centered around a sense of moral obligation to both oneself and his or her fellow humans, no doubt influenced by the humanism spreading from the region at the time. In a culture largely composed of religions requiring devotion to deities, these themes of devotion to oneself must have seemed rather refreshing to some. German philosopher and good friend of Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, would later recognise these themes over two hundred years later as the key elements in European Humanism.
The young Nanak had started to convey these themes and ideas through a number of poetic hymns, a number that by his death in 1539 would reach 974 and be built upon by subsequent Gurus to form the backbone of Sikhism. The poetic manner in which he chose to convey these thoughts mirror the literature that was to be found in the Persian empire of the time through which he had just traveled. Many of the poems and stories of Timurid Persia dealt with the human condition and what makes us who we are, much like the hymns Nanak wrote in his time. So much so that it’s almost certain that the future Guru learned a great deal as he traveled around the region west of the Punjab. Many of the hymns he wrote follow an imagery that artfully uses nature and particularly agricultural metaphors to convey their message and meaning. His compositions invoke much passion for the beauty of the natural world found in the Indus Valley.
With these hymns Nanak began to draw some villagers into his philosophy. Some local Muslims and low caste Hindus could see some truth in his words, recognising the changing world around them and wanting some change from what they started to see as a “tightening noose” of religious society. However Talwandi was soon deemed to not be the best springboard for this new burgeoning community of thinkers. Being a traditional farming community, it was founded by previously high-caste Hindu who had converted to Islam and although the village is unrecognisable today, in those days it most likely had a mosque at its center. The Puratan also mentions a temple there, likely to be Hindu.
With a clean break from the stifling surrounding cultures in mind and a small following now at his back, it might be time to move further afield. The stories tell of the Guru using his compositions as his guide, settling on a pristine piece of land that is both beautiful and fertile. However in reality, the young Nanak was very careful about where he chose to build his settlement for his new community, later to be named Kartarpur.
His father-in-law worked for a local Jat chieftain who could facilitate the acquisition of land along the fertile River Ravi. Nanak’s own knowledge of the land and soils also made certain that he could choose a place where soil fertility and substantial subsoil water made living off of the land a viable possibility. Furthermore the land he chose was extremely close to a well known pilgrimage route that traversed the Indus Valley. Pilgrims, often travelling hundreds if not thousands of miles in the hope of enlightenment were often open minded people in search of meaning if not a new, better way of life than the one they had left. The location of Kartarpur was a smart placement for someone hoping to turn wondering minds towards a more conscious way of living.
The area surrounding Kartarpur, along the River Ravi, was also largely inhabited by Jats. Many Jats had looked to the religions of the area to fulfill their search for a socio religious identity, but many more remained stubborn and outcast. The future Gurus views on political corruption cited in some of his compositions, coupled with his way of wording these moral lessons in agricultural terms, began to draw these farming Jats to him. Figures given to us in the Puratan show that of the first congregation at Kartarpur, a large percentage were Jats. Furthermore upon his death, it was the Jat members of the Sikh community that were his most trusted successors.
Already disenfranchised by the succession of revenue demanding bureaucrats that followed in the wake of the Mangol and now Mughal invasions, the Jats were more than happy to listen to Nanak. Especially when he spoke of the need to repurpose this revenue to their own needs. Afterall, Nanak knew how useless the system was to the community having been surrounded by family members working as revenue collectors and he himself a book keeper for Daulat Khan. Taxes are supposed to be paid by the people so that public works can be undertaken, on a more beneficial and larger scale than the individual could manage with just their own income. However the revenue paid by these farmers of the Punjab rarely came back around and it was an early proposition of the young Nanak to instead hold onto this money, so it could be used within the community. If they were to be separate from the state and ask for nothing from it, what was the need in paying dues to the pen-pushers in Lahore and beyond?
Many scholars will contest that Guru Nanak believed in the creation of what would become known as the Manji system. This was a method for Sikhs to avoid taxation by the Mughal emperors that was built upon by the fifth Guru Arjan, that led to the latters unfortunate death and martyrdom at the hands of the Mughals. However the understanding of the endemic corruption and anti-establishment sentiments in Guru Nanak’s early compositions, plus the way he organised the first Sikh congregations in Kartarpur and eventually further afield seem to indicate that he did indeed want to create an alternative system for his followers…
With the release of a video on tuesday showing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, US, another statistic is added to the list of unarmed black men killed by armed white men in the United States. In this most recently published case a vigilante ex-cop, Gregory McMichael saw the 25-year-old Ahmaud jogging past their front yard, out for what the young man’s mother would call his “daily jog”. However McMichael saw a young black man running and immediately called for his son, his guns and his pickup truck. McMichael suspected that the running black male must have been linked to a string of burglaries in the suburban neighborhood but whether this was to do with Ahmaud himself as a suspect or just racial stereotyping by McMichaels, it still does not call for the actions that followed.
The two civilians, Gregory and his son Travis hunted down, and I use the word hunted with all the appreciation of its connotation, the young Ahmaud Arbery with a shotgun and a .357 Magnum Revolver. As a gun-prude Englishman I may not know a lot about guns, but those two are not weapons you take along to question somebody. Even I know the stopping power that those guns have and how they can be used to put a person down. The connotation of this is that the McMichaels thought they’d have to bring that amount of firepower to just speak to a burglary suspect? I think they wanted to do more than that and the video released on tuesday shows what happened. Ahmoud was shot twice at close range with a shotgun by Travis McMichael and a third time by Gregory who was standing in the bed of the truck. Because of the laws around carrying firearms in Georgia, the claim by McMichael that Ahmaud was a suspected burglar and the claim that Ahmaud had fought back “violently” (after being shot) meant that no action was brought against the McMichaels after the killing. In the eyes of the law, going by the McMichaels’ own account, there was no probable cause for arrest as both carrying deadly weapons and the use of deadly force to protect oneself is legal in the state.
But just how necessary are these laws in what should be one of the most “civilised” countries on earth. After all, isn’t the role of the United States’ missions to the Middle East And Africa to help countries within these areas become more advanced and “civilised” themselves? The concept of civility is “the act of showing regard for others by being polite”, even in situations where you may think others less noble. If civility is one of the criteria for the advanced stage of cultural development we call civilisation I don’t think the McMichael’s got the memo. The act of rolling up on an unarmed man with two heavy-hitting firearms and this confrontation leaving said man on the pavement dead reeks of the Wild West, not the civil west we live in. But then maybe we live in different wests.
In the latter half of 2019 Michael Drejka, a white male from Clearwater Florida shot unarmed Markeis McGlockton, a black man. McGlockton was out shopping with his girlfriend and young family when they were confronted by Drejka over a parking space. Drejka, who has a self-confessed “pet peeve” about illegal parking, had noticed McGlockton’s car in a disable spot and was looking for an accompanying sticker. An argument began as McGlockton’s girlfriend asked him what he thought he was doing, which resulted in Markeis getting involved. Witnesses and the prosecutor claim that Drejka purposefully hurled abuse at McGlockton’s girlfriend in an attempt to provoke McGlockton which unfortunately worked. Markeis McGlockton is said to have pushed Drejka, at which point Drejka drew out his concealed firearm and fired it fatally at Markeis McGlockton who died there outside the convenience store, in front of his five-year-old son and while his youngest children were still in the car.
Drejka told police that he “always” carried his gun and had been doing so for 25 years thanks to his concealed weapons permit. The son of a cop, Drejka regularly checked cars parked in disabled spaces for stickers and reported them, sometimes taking pictures. If he thought this was a dangerous line of work to pursue, maybe he should have left it to the people in a civilised society whose job it is to penalise illegal parkers, unless confrontation was what he was after. Sure he could have been scared and intimidated by a man out shopping with his family after aggressively hurling abuse at his girlfriend, but the overarching theme of many of these “white man kills unarmed black male” does seem to be that the victim is killed after what should have been a passive altercation turns violent. In many cases the prosecution has argued, like in McGlocktons case, that the armed white man had provoked the victims into violence with either physical or often verbal abuse, resulting in a reaction and allowing by some state law the use of deadly force.
This is essentially the 18th century practice of dueling but with one party not knowing the rules. If America really wants to stay in those halcyon days of guns at dawn and public showdowns to the sound of creaking saloon doors maybe they should make it official. The laws of the old west, before silicon valley and Palm Beach, were there to keep order and allow people (although mostly white men) to keep their own law and order in a sparsely populated area. The threat of a shooting or the penalty of death was enough to keep most people from doing anything too illegal in the absence of any wide-reaching law enforcement. But after a while, civilisation rolled in from the east and brought an all-encompassing law and order to the west and the rest of the US. So now why, when the federal cops and the government can keep a watchful eye on everything that happens within their borders and without, do american citizens feel the need to be so uncivilised and take the law into their own hands? But more importantly, why is this allowed by law? Is America truly allowed to call-out Saudi Arabia for its state-sanctioned death penalties when frontier justice and vigilante human-hunters are apparently a-ok in the land of the free?
If the United States is serious about being a “civilised nation” they need to show that they understand the concept of civility. The shooting of an unarmed man, whatever race, for whatever reason, is morally and should be lawfully wrong. The fact that when extrapolated to black men, these killings are often sidelined or the killers let off is abhorrent. America has one of the “best” legal systems in the world, it tells us. Then let it be put to use instead of acting as a bureaucratic maze for cases to get lost in. The role and undeniability of law in the country needs to be emphasised so that citizens no longer feel the need to do it themselves. Only this way can we work out if people that feel the need to be their own judge, jury and executioner do so out of a propensity for justice or for violence.
“Earth in the mouth, and in the soul, and in all./ Earth which I eat, Earth which shall in the end swallow me whole.”
– Miguel Hernández, 1942
Up until even the very recent past, extremist regimes looking to suppress ideas and quell dissent could do so with relative impunity. If they had the manpower and enough shovels.
The recent exhumations of civil war era mass graves in Spain have unearthed what many knew already. That the scope of killings carried out to suppress ideas of freedom by a regime as recent as Francisco Franco’s – who died in power in 1975 – went far beyond what many were willing to accept could be possible in the modern era. After all, the “Pact of Forgetting”, the political agreement of amnesty towards perpetrators of these atrocities after Franco’s passing, ensured that nothing could come from any outpouring of consternation but split families and “unwelcome” tension. Often under no more than inches of soil and dirt, by the sides of roads and walls, the twisted faces of the silenced Spanish had screamed silently for their recognition. Bullets and the thoughts in their heads had put them there and earth covered them. But today to bury an idea one must be much quieter than a gunshot in the night. The suppression of ideas today is carried out by a silent killer, one that is arguably even more powerful and damaging as it echoes through time.
Money flows through all nations and all fingers but in some it pools more than others. For the past ten years a stagnant pool of money has been forming in Europe, with its source in the US. Under its waters ideas about women’s rights, sex education and individuality are being drowned by the steady stream coming from conservative christian “charities” like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), American Center for Law & Order and multiple Evangelical Associations. Claiming to promote freedom of speech and human rights they in fact stifle both. Recent decisions made by parliaments in Poland to ban abortion, the rescinding of LGBT rights in the Czech Republic and Romania and even decisions made in Spain and Italy can be traced back through donations to key politicians, funding of institutions or the setting up of “grassroots” movements by a number of these so-called charities.
This has been happening for some time in both Latin America and Africa, with the banning of contraceptives and the fermenting of horrific homophobia also being linked to resources sourced and funded by similar conservative christian charities. The Family, the 2019 documentary mini-series that has aired on Netflix, does a deep dive into one such organisation called The Fellowship Foundation which is closely tied to the American presidency and has been since the late 1950’s. It details how the combination of religious fervour and political favour is used to promote conservative christian and neoliberal capitalist interests in foreign. Many of these countries are developing or third-world, in need of investment. These quasi-religious charities are able to offer this helping hand, but often ask for some conservative policies to be enacted in return. Many of those in these institutions, such as The Fellowship Foundation, see themselves as doing good by promoting the interests of a religion they deem to be wholesome. But in reality capitalist kingpins, along with the televangelicals use this religious radicalism to promote polarisation and fear to form a dark if not exploitable storm.
By effectively buying these countries and their politicians they promote the subjugation and silence of those deigning to espouse non-capitalist or non-christian views. This white collar terrorism is at first less noticable that the methods of past regimes, with bullet holes being much easier to discern that holes in the fabric of society. However the ripples these shots make have lasting ripples that may not be seen in full force for some years.
Money may always have bought silence, but with the funds available to well positioned institutions in today’s world – and more importantly individuals – these small pockets of silence are in danger of becoming a carpet. When one of the world’s richest and most influential men, Steve Bannon, is opening a self-proclaimed “gladiator” school to train would-be world leaders in the methods of populism to “conserve the Judaeo-Christian west”, or Mike Zuckerberg is threatening the UK government, the cards and interests of the worlds capitalists are firmly on the table.
A bought global news media that also perpetuates the permutations of these perversely populist and capitalist agendas helps shovel the earth over these voices further and at a time when town squares are no-go zones all together, who is left to cry out.
Who hasn’t heard this or been guilty of saying it themselves when asked about their music taste? It’s a great way to let people know you’re not too uptight or closed-minded, especially at parties. But what does it actually mean?
Not everyone listens to a wide variety of music. Some music fans are infamous for shooting down any style of music that isn’t their chosen religion, be it genre or band. While standing in the crowd of a Slipknot gig once I was confronted by a mask-wearing fan who was adamant that unless you listened to only the nine piece metal outfit exclusively, you couldn’t call yourself – and were not worthy of being called – a fan. Not just a true fan, but a fan altogether. This guy didn’t want me listening to Slipknot if I was filling my ears with frequencies other than vicious double-bass pedalling and Corey Taylor’s growling vocals. Other people can happily tolerate a polysonic existence when it means listening to the radio or background music but don’t really have such a strong opinion on what they would choose to listen to given the choice.
The choice to listen to Slipknot, Spanish fandango’s or Vivaldi is at the end of the day, a choice and you can’t fault someone for not having the time to listen to them all equally. There’s just so much music saturating the world right now, vying for airwaves into your earholes that you’d have to be making a conscious effort to expand your horizons beyond what you know and get pleasure from. Listening to musical styles that you’re either unfamiliar with or don’t enjoy on first listen could be seen as an exercise in empathy. After all, good music can be a view through the eyes of someone in a different life or situation to you. A situation you may never have found yourself in and never hope to, but it shouldn’t mean you can’t understand.
Take Golden Era American hip-hop for example. To many it’s viewed as an aggressive, overly violent genre that exaggerates and idolises violence and criminality. But if you were to actually listen to some of the defining examples of the genre with just a little understanding about the role in society that young black americans felt pushed into by a stereotyping media, poor living conditions in projects and the introduction of laws such as the “three strikes” bill – used to incarcerate many black Americans for petty crimes – examples such as Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones pt II and Nas’ NY State Of Mind can be viewed as philosophy through the prism of a culture of violence they couldn’t not find themselves looking through. As Mobb Deep’s member Havoc says in verse two of Shook Ones;
“Thirteen years in the projects—my mentality is what, kid?”
Taking the time to scratch beneath the surface of violent imagery and language reveals a deep philosophical aspect to most of the albums and songs that are valued by fans of the genre. Havoc goes on;
“…Sometimes I wonder, do I deserve to live?
Or am I gonna burn in Hell for all the things I did?”
With the right set of ears on and the ability to listen one starts to see that much of the rhetoric used, from Kool G Rap to Ice Cube, hides a philosophy on a struggle against a system that doesn’t want them. A philosophy that most people could understand and get behind, especially with what’s being revealed about American society in today’s world. As Nas describes in the 90’s;
“Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain…
…Cops could just arrest me, blamin’ us; we’re held like hostages”
Not hearing the philosophy behind the way these artists choose to express themselves and describe their situation could show a lack of empathy to some.
But then again, there are so many musical genres, who has the time to really listen when first impressions don’t land right with you, especially when they’re shrouded in offensive language and violent rhetoric. And you can’t blame anyone for that.
This approach to what we choose to listen to and how it defines us can be expanded to the current state of political thought. There are so many views, polarising and self-righteous, flooding the airwaves today, that it’s difficult to find the time or inclination to delve into the reasoning behind a statement if on the surface it seems so out of line with your own experience.
To truly listen to what a person has to say, regardless of whether you agree or not is an attempt at understanding a situation different from your own. It’s trying to listen to the anger of Black Flag when you’re a fan of Billie Holiday’s blues. You might not like what you’re hearing at first, but by delving deeper into the situation that created the music you might learn that there’s some similarities in the woes they both cry about. You might still not like the music but you now have an understanding and from understanding comes common ground, even appreciation.
Time is seemingly a valuable commodity these days, and yet we fill that time multitasking with nascent vacant tasks that stop us from pondering about others and their situations. Instead of daring to read an opposing view we choose to read articles that reinforce our bubbles of opinion and find new ways to pander to ourselves to make ourselves feel like a better person.
I am not saying that every person spouting violent rhetoric and offensive views has a story to tell, but there’s usually a story as to how they got there.
The need to feel comfortable and listen to the same music is a stifling one, we should all try and listen to something new every once in a while.
At first glance, the Spanish city of Cádiz can seem not too different from the strips of the sunshine coast on the Mediterranean side of Gibraltar. The more modern part of the city seems centered around highrise lined boulevards and palms that stretch alongside the Atlantic. But continue along the Island to its northern tip and you find its true history – and beauty – plain to see.
Tucked away between the southern coast of Portugal and the great limestone monolith of Gibraltar, Cádiz lies at the south western tip of the Iberian peninsula, itself stretching thinly into the surrounding bay. It’s this location on the cusp of Europe that has made the area one of great importance for many cultures. First founded by the ancient Phoenicians as Gadir over 3,000 years ago, this tiny island strip has been fought over and prized ever since making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the whole of western Europe.
Initially founded as a western trading post by the seafaring Phoenicians around 1100 BC, it soon became a port of great repute with many early explorations of West Africa and Europe setting off from it’s waters. Soon however the power struggles of Mediterranean antiquity soon caught up with Cádiz as it was taken as a military stronghold by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca for his first war against Rome. Named the Punic Wars, these were barbarous and viciously fought as the North African and European superpowers struggled for control of the Mediterranean and its trade routes. Hamilcar Barca’s son, the black general Hannibal who famously led elephants across the Alps to attack Rome in the second Punic War did so using the military depot of Gadir/Cádizas his setting off point for his infamous crossing.
Cádiz however was to change hands again before long. As Carthage eventually fell to Rome, so did the Iberian port. Under Julius Caesar and later Augustus it became a place for the wealthy to have sprawling estates across the island and surrounding area, with sources describing how the noble families would reserve box seats for Rome’s Coliseum, lavish themselves with music and art and indulge in amazing food. While the sprawling estates no longer stand – after being raised in raids by the Visigoths – the attitude towards food and culture can still be found lingering amongst the city’s narrow cobbled streets.
The gastronomy of Cádiz is well renowned throughout Spain, its famous fish market seemingly providing all of Andalucía with daily fresh produce. From tiny bar-service Cervezaria’s to Michelin starred restaurants like El Faro, the smell of cod croquettas and fried hake hangs in the air as if it were the sea breeze itself. But to truly experience the food, one doesn’t have to leave the market at all. Like many Andalucían towns and cities, the square of hectic haggling and propped up produce is surrounded by stalls and hole-in-the-wall style eateries that provide dishes made with ingredients you may have just walked past half an hour ago and Cádiz is no different. From sublimely fresh salads of roasted peppers and artichokes to delicately fried fish and shrimp, the surrounding stalls of Cádiz’s marketplace give you all you need and at such reasonable prices you’ll consider never leaving.
Within the tiled walls of the market, sharp-eyed fish of all sizes stare back at you while prawns of various colours lounge over the sides of the stalls. Eager to be picked by the many people shuffling through, stuffing bags of seafood into their two-wheeled trolleys.
Watching the world go by with a glass of white wine and a thinly fried prawn pancake (called a Tortilla de Camarones) is a simple pleasure but it’s always enhanced by the addition of culture, and Cádiz has plenty to spare. Meandering through the marketplace you may see the white bearded figure of a certain Luis Aranzana Morales, a poet more than happy to share a piece or two of Spain’s literary works – as well as some of his own – for no more than a true appreciation of his craft. And he is not alone, for Cádiz, despite being a place of wealth and nobility in the past, has a rich history of left-leaning commentators quick to point out the flaws in the system and the grievances of the people.
While many carnivals centre around lively music and dancing, the Carnival of Cádiz has been doing this while throwing shade at the establishment since the fifteenth century. Using humour as its vehicle, the carnival allows its participants to “purge” their grievances through mockery and irony. These often come in the form of satirical songs to the point where the fascist dictator Franco officially banned the celebration in 1937. However in the spirit of true anti-establishmentarianism the practice was continued behind closed doors before eventually spilling out into the streets again in the 40’s, albeit without the use of the word “Carnival”.
Thought to have originated with an influx of Genovese merchants, forced westwards by increasing turkish control of the Mediterranean, the carnival has a surprisingly Italian feel, with confetti, costumes and masks all being a mainstay of performance and participation. It’s beloved all throughout Spain and is a cultural pilgrimage for many, especially as it allows for somewhat controversial conversation in quite a staunchly conservative culture that is an unwelcome but often unspoken hangover from Franco’s long rule. This openness is reflected when walking around the cobbled streets or sitting in the evening air as the inhabitants of the city feel louder and more unhindered than in other cities of the mainland. A free-mind and an unwillingness to conform to a broken system could also go some way to explaining the levels of unemployment in the city, the highest in Spain, along with a shrinking population.
As you walk further through the streets of Cádiz’s Casco Antiguo, lamps jutting from beneath the ornately decorated facades, you could be forgiven for thinking all of the architecture before you harks back to the greatness of Spain’s colonial history. Much of its current aesthetic wealth does derive from the Age of Exploration, with Christopher Columbus setting sail on his second and fourth journeys to the New World from the city’s port and later endowing it with Spain’s Royal Treasure Fleet. It was such a jewel in fact that Sir Francis Drake, the English pirate-cum-privateer, chose to attack the city in the late 14th century in an attack later named “The Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard” in which he captured several ships and occupied the harbour for three days. The attack was so disruptive to Spain and its economy that it delayed the Spanish Armada by a whole year.
But while much of it has indeed been around since Columbus’s time – so reminiscent of Spanish colonies such as Cuba that Cádiz was a stand-in for Havana in the James Bond film Die Another Day – there are few pointers to the previous culture that called this tiny island home, much of the old town being destroyed in raids by Barbary Corsairs before even Drake appeared in Cádiz’s waters. Like much of Spain, white Christians filled a space created by force during the 15th century*Reconquista, in which the Muslim Moors of al-Andalus – modern day Andalucía- were violently expelled from the Iberan peninsula they had called home since 711 AD. However if you look closely enough, distinctly moorish arches curve at the top of some facades but the most notable remnant lies in the shadow of the city’s cathedral.
As you walk along the promenade of Cádiz northwards, the catholic place of worship dominates the skyline. With its terracotta coloured basilica and rising towers it is hard to miss, but continue towards it and you will pass another stack of brickwork and domes that seems to replicate the grand building behind. In fact, this cluster of walls and whitewash is an old mosque, left over from before the largely muslim population were brutally removed from the area. Built before the cathedral (which was constructed between 1722 and 1838) the mosque gives a cultural clue to the diverse history of Spain’s south. Like many Andalucían towns and cities these clues are hidden in plain sight, such as the large cathedrals of Córdoba and Seville which were both previously grand mosques, repurposed or rebuilt as catholic constructions after conquest in the Reconquista. Much of Spain’s history owes itself to the advancements made by these moors, from architecture to agriculture and even the name Cádiz itself is derived from the name given to the island by the Moors; Qādis.
However, this is not to take away from what Cádiz means to Spain and Andalucíans in particular. For every Spanish person that speaks of the city holds it in high regard, whether they are expressing their love of its beaches, its food, its historical importance or its comedy. Most often all at once. The winding narrow streets of the northern old town, found within its fortified walls mimic the islands meandering history, one of culture and conquest and a history that came to an important peak for Spain in 1812. Within these same fortified walls that stand today, the Spanish Cortes of Cádiz signed one of the most liberal constitutions of the time. While acknowledging the importance of and affirming the separation of power, the freedom of the press and abolishing corporate privileges it also granted universal voting rights to all male citizens (with some exceptions of course), a first in constitutional history. Its bold new ideas paved the way for later constitutions in both Spain and Spanish America, placing Cádiz once again at the centre of a changing world.
Despite the royal English charter granting trade, England still found itself plagued by foreign ships in her own waters. The Dutch, having the most powerful navy of the time, had harassed British ships for decades by disrupting trade and were generally considered to be the leading European trading power. Control of Europe’s waters meant control of the bountiful trade routes that passed through them and this had been a priority for Cromwell as well as Charles II. Cromwell had begun to expand Britain’s navy in hopes of better protecting Britain’s overseas colonies in the middle of the century, tightening up it’s ranks and building purpose-made warships that could hold their own against other European countries. The Dutch had actually started selling off their well-armed navy after their grueling wars against the Spanish Habsburgs on the European mainland, which had vastly reduced their funds. More importantly, the introduction of a series of Trade & Navigation Acts between 1651 and 1696 made it increasingly difficult for European countries to bypass Britain and her taxes on the way to the colonised lands of the New World. Strict “English Only” rules were imposed on any ships trading with British colonies meaning that the ship’s owners, over three quarters of a ship’s crew, and even the ships themselves had to be made in England. The introduction, but more importantly the strict enforcement of these laws heralded the beginning of the British Empire’s power monopoly as well as providing a key source of revenue. No one could do business with Britain or her expanding colonies without bureaucratic approval or the necessary bonds, both of which would cost you.
These Navigation Acts unsurprisingly did not sit well with the Dutch Republic but faced with an increasingly powerful British navy and a succession of revolts by their Spanish subjects, their trading powers began to dwindle. Over a series of three Anglo-Dutch wars from 1652-1674, the British defeated the Dutch republic and captured important new-world colonies like New Amsterdam, better known by its later British name of New York.
Bolstered by the notion of commonwealth introduced in the first half of the century and the increasing power it had over other European countries, Britain’s national conscience in the years following the restoration in 1660 had become more orientated toward a sense of national wealth and colonial commerce. With this came an increased demand for the riches of Britain’s colonies, for which manpower was needed. Colston family friend Prince Rupert’s newly discovered trade links in the Gambia had yielded not just gold and ivory, but cheap manpower too. With the Dutch recently defeated at sea, the path for exploiting this new highly profitable trade was wide open.
However, the Company of Royal Adventurers was not always a success. It’s failings and accrued debts eventually led to its absorption into the newly chartered Royal Africa Company in 1672. That year also saw royal finances in such a dire condition that Charles II halted all repayments of crown owed-debt, leaving many London bankers who had sunk their money into Royally-backed companies destitute. With the RAC looking for new funding outside of the crown, the reliance fell heavily on private investors, not just for cash but for direction. In 1672 buying £400 worth of shares in the RAC could mean your appointment as a “company assistant” and while sounding meagre, these assistants were in effect company executives. They sat on boards to decide how the company was run, what it traded and how much it would pay for goods. The ruinous events of 1672 removed many of these assistants as their fortunes disappeared over night, whisked away into the bowels of crown debt never to be repaid. This opened up new opportunities for assistants wanting to gain more sway within the company or new investors altogether (perhaps from the recently failed Company of Royal Adventurers) as more shares became available and new directions were set. With profitability high on merchants agendas, it comes as no coincidence that the year 1672 saw the RAC granted a legal monopoly on specifically the West African slave trade, with executive powers being granted to ensure its security.
By this time the Colston family, being traditionally royalist, had been trading with the RAC for some time and been both well connected and fortunate enough to not lose any fortunes in their vested royal interests. This was a time before banking and most scrupulous merchants would be investing their fortunes themselves. Edward’s father had been selling goods to the RAC for profit, recorded in 1674 as earning £3,000 for the sale of cloth to be used in the purchase of enslaved Africans. His brother Thomas as previously mentioned sold glass beads to the RAC, beads that by this time were solely used in the purchase of Africans. In the late 1670’s Edward himself is reported to have sold in excess of £60,000 worth of textiles requested by West African tribes to the RAC for the procurement of human slaves. At the “conventional price” in the 1670’s of £3 a slave, that is enough to promote the removal of over 20,000 Africans from their homeland. This large-scale dealing was a normality for Edward Colston, who by the 1680’s had been elected to Bristol’s prestigious Society of Merchant Venturers himself after his father’s passing in 1681. At that time he is described as a “mere merchant”, a term that held the opposite connotation of today, being used for “large-scale dealers in overseas commerce”. The scale of his operations and fortunes only increased after his father’s death, with he and his brother receiving 40 ships as well as large estates in their father’s will. Furthermore the sudden illness and subsequent death of his brother Thomas left Edward as the sole male heir to the Colston fortune and fleet and he soon put it to work. In the 1680s he sat as a shareholding assistant on the company’s committee for shipping, encouraging the renting of ships by the RAC rather than outright procurement. As the new owner of a 40-strong fleet, this proved incredibly profitable for Colston. Freight charges alone could amass over £1,000 per ship, with a live slave fetching £5 at the end of the voyage. The only limit to your ambition as a merchant in slaves was how many of them you were willing to cram into the hull of a ship. It led to horrifically cramped conditions, with any slaves that died or suffered injuries being cast overboard into the churning waves of the Atlantic ocean, worthless to merchants like Edward Colston.
By the 1680’s the Royal Africa Company had ceased to be Royal in all but name. While senior positions were held by royals, the running of the company fell to the businessmen such as Colston. With limited interference from the crown it had become a vehicle for the company’s assistants to enrich themselves by introducing restrictions on trade and concocting levies that filled their pockets and consolidated their power. In 1675, only 7% of the RACs investors held over £1,000 worth of the 200 available stock options each. At £100 a share (equivalent to £11,445 in 2017) this was a sizable amount of control by a small number of influencers. By 1688 this had been consolidated into upwards of £2,000 worth of shares (£100 = $12,000 by 1690), each held by just 2% of shareholders. This level of business-savvy – or machiavellian approach to business depending on how you see it – is not something we associate with people of the 1600’s, instead this is the type of thinking only modern companies and their employees can partake in. In reality vast sums of money were changing hands all the time and those that found themselves in positions of power generally tried to enrich themselves while they were there. The table below goes some way to showing how much money was flowing through London at this time, with less than 1% of merchants trading over £217,000 worth of goods. In today’s money this equates to nearly £25 million.
The likelihood is that these high value trade items were black Africans, especially as they were traded with the plantations of the West Indies. The monetary figures in the table above represent just a fraction of the 74,085 human lives documented as tradable commodities by the RAC, earmarked for the West Indies. As Britain expanded her colonies, the demand for slaves increased and with this so did the fortunes of those involved. But with the financially liberating laws following the civil war being overturned after the restoration of king Charles II, these wealthy merchants needed a new way to protect their wealth from royal taxes and other leeches.
The plucky British victories in the Anglo-Dutch wars had proven Britain the ruler of the waves and opened up new colonies and supply lines. But while the British had defeated the Dutch at sea, they were still lacking their financial clout and intuition. Britain had been trying to get ahead of the money game for some time with the advanced workings of Italian accountants pulling the country forward, Lombardy Street being so named as it was the center of Italian financial business in London. However the swing towards nationalism and jingoism brought on by the Navigation Acts caused many to start viewing anyone other than Englishmen with suspicion. By this time Charles II had passed away, leaving his brother James II to rule. The new King was an outspoken Catholic unlike his predecessor and this had caused some consternation among Parliament. A series of unwise decisions by James II like the forced implementation of religious decrees and the prosecution of Anglican leaders, led to a rise in public unrest. This unrest meant the crown were unwilling to grant parliament any new powers, especially concerning money. This meant that English merchants had to look elsewhere for support in order to build themselves into a financial power. Even looking towards a not-so-distant enemy.
The Dutch were well-known for their financial system. Market-orientated and stable, it was good inspiration for the British merchants who wanted to base their new system around their increasing colonial trade. So, in the mid 1680’s a group of City of London merchants began to draw up a set of demands and decrees that would govern the financial state of Britain as they saw fit. However with the Catholic James II unlikely to give parliament any concessions, the merchants needed a new monarch to approach and inspiration is not all they wanted from the Dutch.
William of Orange, a protestant married to James II’s own daughter, had recently become stadtholder of the Dutch republic and had been in secret contact with the City of London for some time. He was well aware of the growing discontent in Britain towards James II’s overly religious method of ruling and as a protestant stood in direct opposition to the increasingly forceful Catholic crown. In 1687 he penned an open letter to the British people urging against the increasingly Catholic rule of James II. Judging the public’s reaction, the merchants in London called for the Dutch stadtholder to invade Britain along with his wife Mary and in 1688, they did just that. James II, after a series of bumbling battles vacated the British throne, leaving it open for the reign of William and Mary.
But before they were jointly crowned, they first were presented with the Bill of Rights, which included the Declaration of Right that severely limited the powers of the crown while protecting the new “companies” being formed by leading merchants. This all important document that the City of London had been draughting would pave the way for joint stock companies and lead Britain into the future, however dark.
The life of Edward Colston, the former favorite philanthropist of Bristol turned profiteering villain, has been written about a lot since he was dethroned from his plinth and hauled into the city’s harbour in early June of 2020. But beyond his associations with the slave trade, the surrounding politics and ideas of Colston’s time that allow us to see how such an amoral business became so profitable have escaped further examination. By looking into the seventeenth century of Edward Colston, can we say much has really changed?
Edward Colston was born on 2 November 1636 in the City of Bristol, England. At the time, Bristol was the second richest city in the country after London, largely owing to its large port and warehouses. Edwards’ father, William Colston, was a staunch Royalist and already a well-established member of the Bristol gentry as the Colston family had been since the 13th century, making their money in the import/export market of Bristol. By 1644, while the first Civil War of three was raging across England, the Colston Patriarch became the Master of Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers – a hugely influential group in the city that still exists today – as well as being the alderman and Sheriff for Bristol. However these last two positions of power could not be fully consolidated for as the war drew closer, the City of Bristol fell to Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces in September of 1645. The King’s own nephew, Prince Rupert, surrendered the City of Bristol and all supporters of the King were forced to flee to Royalist strongholds like London.
Most of us know about the English Civil War and that it played an important role in Britain becoming the “Great” nation it was to become. At school we’re taught that in 1649 the useless King Charles I was overthrown, and in a national first, beheaded by an angry Parliament made up of the layman who’d had enough of the Crown’s unfair taxation and the stifling Catholicism that came with Stuart rule. It was an important moment for the English Public, with more power being given to them through parliament, as power was stripped from the monarchs and a Common-wealth was established. Many historians maintain that the Civil War was a class war between the elite royalists and the common parliamentarians but a closer look shows that this black and white picture doesn’t give us all the tones, as is so often the case. Many of the land-owning aristocrats supported parliament and many downtrodden peasants chose to fight for the king. So what was it really all about?
To get a better perspective of the lead up to war, let us go back all the way towards the beginning of the century to 1618, ten years after the birth of Edward’s father. This was a time of the Royal Empire, when most of Britain’s global revenue flowed through the crown and any shares in these spoils were held by invitation only. King James I, father of the to-be-headless Charles I, had just issued a royal charter for trade in West Africa. The Dutch and Portuguese had been in West Africa for some time, enslaving and shipping black Africans to plantations across the Atlantic. While some periphery traders were doing the same, the new English company consisting of merchants loyal to the crown mainly supplied weapons and textiles to the tribesmen of the African continent in return for valuable minerals. Much of the gold used in minting Britain’s sovereign coins – guineas – came from these trade routes, with their name coming from the Asante country of Guinea, now part of Ghana, where much of this gold was sourced. The ‘Guinea Companie’ as it became known held a monopoly on trade with West Africa for a number of years, but it fell short of it’s 31 year grant. By the early stages of it’s trade, parliament already saw the company as a way for royalists to get rich at the expense of private merchants, who were heavily taxed for their involvement or excluded from the trade altogether.
After seeing the restlessness of parliament, in 1631 the rights to trade with West Africa were sold to the ‘Company of Merchants Trading with Guinea’. While looking different on paper, this new company was made up of many of the same faces and the same pockets that profited from the previous ‘Royal’ company – including the lead organiser and profiteer of The Guinea Companie Nicholas Crispe – and was just a method of placating any ruffled parliamentarians. This new charter was again for 31 years and it kept the direct trade routes with Africa and their profits in the hands of a select few. By this point, even some royalists were becoming tired of the rules and restrictions imposed by the crown, which took vast swathes of income from merchants trading with her colonies in the form of taxes. Some scheming merchants began devising ways in which the riches of Britain’s Colonies could be opened up and kept by any interested merchants, not just the crown and merchants with royal connections like Colston’s father.
While direct trade with West Africa remained more-or-less a members-only club for Englishmen, this period saw increased industry around the English trading ports like Bristol and Liverpool as industrialists strove to manufacture the goods used for trade with Africa. These burgeoning industries included bead-making and brasswork, which Bristol had a major role in producing. Brass bracelets called ‘manillas’ were produced in large quantities so that they could be shipped to West Africa where they were highly prized for their copper content and used as currency. Glass beads were produced and used in Europe solely for the purpose of being used as currency on the African continent. Edward Colston’s brother Thomas would later make his fortune in the bead-business but that was to come at a much darker time in the nation’s trading history. The trade in human lives was always on the periphery of any company’s dealings with West Africa but it was not until after the Civil War that it became the true focus of British mercantile interest. At this time the Dutch were the main transporters of West African slaves and this would continue until a succession of restrictive Navigation Acts passed by English Parliament ousted them as the chief mercantile power of Europe. For now, in the early half of the 17th century, the English trade was largely in weapons, commodities and luxury goods. From this great increase in industry came a great increase in wealth for merchants and industrialists and they looked for new horizons in which to invest their new fortunes. For those with the capital, there was a growing interest in new “joint stock companies”, such as the Muscovy Company, which offered bonds with sometimes large returns; an ancestor of the modern corporation. Supposedly anyone could buy shares and in these companies one simply put money on the table and entrusted others to do the work, reaping the spoils of successful trade voyages without ownership of the ship or the goods. The crown too offered bonds, but the monarchy was increasingly viewed with suspicion as they repeatedly defaulted on debts-owed despite demanding high taxes from it’s subjects.
It was into this climate of increasingly free-market thinking and royal-distrust that Edward Colston was brought into this world. His father, having been a well-connected royalist, was involved with the first chartered companies to West Africa and continued to be involved after relocating to London in 1645. However the return of Charles II to England in 1660 after the death of Oliver Cromwell meant a return to pre-Civil War royalism for many, as the Convention Parliament established by Cromwell was dissolved and the crown retook control of the country’s finances. The Colston patriarch William was able to return to Bristol where he took up his old position as Alderman, however the young Edward chose to remain in London, forging merchant links with ports from Tangiers to Rotterdam despite the many violent wars raging through Europe at the time. He did however maintain close ties with his birth-city of Bristol, using it’s port and warehouses to store and transport textiles, wines and oils around Europe. His own very profitable trade in Spanish cloths and sherries saw him making Iberian connections that would prove useful later in his life and potentially paved the way for Bristol’s famous Harvey family to create their own sherry empire a century later.
Yet the return of a king regent was not the only thing to happen in 1660. After the surge in interest in both West African trade and joint stock companies, 1660 saw the creation of the Company of Royal Adventurers of Trading to Africa. A precursor to the formidable Royal Africa Company (RAC), the Company of Royal Adventurers was founded after Prince Rupert – who had surrendered the City of Bristol to Cromwell in 1645 and still has a street in the city named after him – led a very successful mission to the Gambia, returning with both gold, ivory and Africans in the late 1650’s. After some time seeking out financiers among City of London merchants and other royals, the Prince then approached the newly reinstated Charles II with his proposition for a new company trading to the Gambia. Not wanting to waste an opportunity to procure more wealth for the state, in particular the virgin gold mines of West Africa, the newly reinstated Stuart royal family granted a charter for the trade of gold and ivory from the Capo Blanco to the Cape of Good Hope. Thirteen years later the charter had been updated to include slaves, unwittingly setting the tone for the coming centuries.
Published directly after the victory of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes’ treatise of man, Leviathan, was seen by many as justification for the past nine years of bloody battle. In it, Hobbes argues that to stop man descending into the selfish and wanton creature that is his natural state, a commonality must be found and a ruling power in place; found in the creation of a Commonwealth – or Parliament to some. Through his writings he describes how the larger needs of a commonwealth can lead to a greater richness of society, while also noting the pitfalls of sovereignty and religion.
But what of his writings, 350 years later. What would Hobbes have to write about now? Has anything changed that much? The simple answer is no. Human-kind still longs for power and while corrupting, that tribalism holds us together through many things. But the tribalism of shared governance and sovereign nations has given way to a new Leviathan in today’s millenium. This Leviathan spans continents and governs many a life, but is seemingly beholden to no-one.
Big Business started coming on to the scene around the turn of the century, with monopolies for oil and other amenities bursting into existence with the birth of that capitalist breeding ground, America. While monopolies had always been around, they had largely been under the control of or belonged to the ruler of a nation or empire. A gradual change in Britain’s laws after the 17th century’s Glorious Revolution enhanced the rights of the shareholder and enhanced protections for businesses, laws that were heavily replicated in the US declaration of Independence in 1776. In America, the layman could become a holder of vast wealth seemingly overnight. The birthing of millionaires such as J.P Morgan (who had a monopoly on copper that ties him to the quiet downfall of Nikolai Tesla) and John D. Rockefeller (the father of the oil industry through the creation of Standard Oil) created webs of power that did not beholden these men or their morals to anything sovereign or religious. It could be argued that such power and influence attributed to a man with no ties could take him back to his most primitive; solely looking out for himself, as in the dawn of humanity Hobbes may argue.
One hundred years down the line and business has become of number one importance to us as a society. We work to aid the turning of societies gears, and these turn because of a healthy economy which in turn responds to the demands of the market. We are beholden to the market. Sovereign leaders and elected governors make their decisions based on the markets more often than they do the will of their people. Just as in the past religion ruled conscious thought, so now business-acumen and adherence to the company line rule our thought processes. The public work and toil for the business they work for, with the wealth of the business coming before the health of the worker. With the rise of zero-hours contracts the threat of termination looms with every last-minute shift you’re thrown that you can’t do and the pressure to perform often outweighs the actual value of the work.
This method of mental ransom isn’t too far flung from the methods of the church in Hobbes’ era of blooming parliament, where excommunication awaited anyone that spoke against the establishment. If someone were found to have been preaching against the churches teachings, or even extrapolating on religious thought without the churches consent, they could expect ostracisation from society. Public services would no longer be available to them, they could no longer apply for jobs and people would steer clear of them to avoid tingeing themselves.
This may seem a bit far fetched but these methods of excommunication are already in effect in today’s world. Journalists in China, a country seemingly sovereign but increasingly taking over from the United States as a centre for commerce, are finding themselves unable to access healthcare, purchase tickets for travel out of or around the country and they are even finding themselves unable to buy groceries. This is not an accident, it is the expression of China’s social crediting system; whereby “good” behaviour in society is rewarded and “uncivil” behaviour is punished. In the most recent cases however it seems that punishable behaviour includes speaking against the government and attempting to call it to task.
While this relates to the powers of government not big business, it is important to note that government was the new way forward when the church wielded these powers of excommunication in the time of Leviathan. Cromwell’s parliament was the savior of England, lifting the chains imposed on society by religion and providing new opportunities to the leyman. So if governments are now brandishing the sword only religion could previously lift, what’s the new Leviathan rising from the depths that we’ll be beholden to next?
In recent years, it could even be argued that people are affected socially by the culture of their business more than the geographical culture surrounding them in the city they live in. Work dictates the hours you sleep, who you socialise with, how you act with other people and moreover, how you see the world. A rise in sales-like jobs such as recruitment could aid a sense of opportunism for many. Great for them, not so great for the people that they are going to take advantage of, in a work setting or outside of it. A strong business culture encourages tribalism. Look at the best companies around the world and they are all described as having a strong sense of “culture”, like ExxonMobil and Apple which encourages its employees to act a certain way and think a certain way about their business dealings. The imperialistic nature of how Exxon conducts its business acquisitions is one of the reasons for their success, and why its former CEO Rex Tillerson was selected to serve in the White House as Secretary of State in 2017. He is not the only businessman to have found a senior position in the whitehouse but this trend has become even more apparent under Donald Trump with good and bad businessmen being given senior roles in US affairs. This says much about the direction of US interests and the spending of taxpayers money with the survival of business prioritised over people and citizens. However this is not just a trend in the US, countries all over the world are following the lead of maintaining a healthy economy over a population. Great Britain is a leader in choosing money over mankind and it’s recent decisions in regards to Coronavirus, namely allowing business’ to stay open while simultaneously telling people to steer clear and offering no help in law, have cemented this view in my mind. But with more and more countries beholden to the economic goals and deadlines of the IMF and World Bank, I fear that citizens coming second to economic growth is the new normal.
If writing it now, I have no doubt that Hobbes would include business and its role in society in his treatise Leviathan. How he may write about it though I could not tell, as he would no doubt see the burgeoning wealth and good grace that it would bring along with the social advancements and economic growth. But would he also see the darker side, of monopolies and cheap labour, of manufactured debt and bankruptcy? Maybe he would, but unfortunately that’s just up to you.
The UK, we are constantly being told, is in the middle of a housing crisis. In some cities it’s worse than others with local councils making pledges to build thousands of affordable homes all over the place. A House of Commons report from March 2020 estimated a need for 345,000 new homes per year, a figure not reached in the previous year despite 2019 being the strongest year for house building since the financial crash of 2008. But with an ever increasing rate of house-building occurring – 2018/19 was up 9% on the previous year – who wants to buy them? The percentage of UK homeowners has gone down by 10% over the last decade and the buying power of young adults is diminishing. As property prices increase at astronomical rates of over 250% in some areas, wages for young adults have increased by a meagre 19% causing a drop in interest and of trust in the nation’s housing market by 25-34 year olds. The UK is focussed on building houses for a generation that won’t be able to afford them and doesn’t necessarily want them. The high deposits needed for a mortgage are another reason for decreasing home ownership, even when the payments themselves amount to savings of thousands of pounds compared to rent, even in London. Couple this with a host of other factors such as confusing and constricting planning laws and it’s no wonder The UK is falling behind the rest of the world. Across the English Channel in France the number of homeowners is steadily increasing. Germany is seeing the same trend and it’s not all to do with who’s buying or building them.
It’s about how.
In the UK building your own home is not something we generally consider. Only 10% of homes in the UK are self-builds. Instead we have large estates of homogeneous housing drawn up by large developers which people are then expected to buy – straight from the shop floor as it were. This is not the case elsewhere.
In the rest of Europe, self-builds account for an average 50% of housing with Austria topping it at 80%. In the USA it’s 45%. These are not necessarily houses that people have built with their own two hands, but they have been involved from the very beginning in the design, functionality and development of their home. In many European countries, this is actively encouraged with the introduction of Serviced Plots in areas of towns and cities. One such example city is the Netherlands’ fifth largest city Almere, which recently gave up a huge zone of land exclusively for around 3000 self-build homes. Serviced Plots are areas of land that are connected to a central infrastructure; water system, sewage system and an energy grid, but other than that, they are undeveloped. Plots are bought and developed by those wanting to live there with the help of consultants and because the buyers are involved from the beginning, the home they build is exactly as they would like it to be in regards to space-usage, energy-usage and design and is often subsidised by the local government to some extent. As well as government subsidies help and support is always available from organisations like banks because this method of building is key to their economies and the social health of the populace. The development is usually done by small-to-middle sized, often family run local developers with close ties to the local community and council which in most cases ensures a mutual trust about what goes up in the area. These homes also often use green energy, have lower waste from the construction and because many opt to have gardens, more biodiverse than if that plot were a field. Sounds great right?
So why can’t we do this in the UK? Even if it’s not for everybody it sounds like a great option to have. The UK’s National Self-Build Association cites the “availability of land” as the main obstacle to this type of housing in the UK. The Joseph Rountree foundation and the DCLG Select Committee back this up saying the population density in Britain is higher than places in Europe. But both Belgium and the Netherlands – two countries with a tradition of self-builds – have a higher number of people per km². A more likely reason is the difference in rights allowed to a landowner.
In European countries like Germany, it is a constitutional right to develop land that you own and the Americans of course have similar things written into their constitution. In the UK however no such constitution exists and the current planning laws make it extremely difficult to develop on land, even when you own it (as explained by Mark Brinkley who literally wrote the book on it). In most cases only certain types of buildings are allowed – named “permitted developments” – and even these can be extremely hard to acquire permission for or even understand. This is in part, down to the method of applying for permissions. In the UK, an application can be put in for “permissions” with a much lower level of planning and thought than you can elsewhere in Europe. In many EU countries for example a Building Regulation Application is applied for, which ensures the proposed building fits with the character, local energy goals and any other criteria the government and more importantly local councils have set for new builds. Because the rules about what can be built and what can’t are so clear, proposed buildings must be thoroughly planned and designed before the development is even OK’d. This ensures everyone knows what they’re getting into, from developers and homeowners to the locals and soon-to-be-neighbours. Couple this with a society that encourages discussion between neighbors in order to settle development disputes instead of getting the council involved everytime and you have a society more geared towards mindful development instead of mindless devolution.
NIMBYism (or Not In My Back Yard) is rife in the UK. With large-scale developers constantly acquiring contracts for large-scale housing estates it’s hardly surprising the English jump everytime they see a crane or a rubble remover. Once again, because so much can change after the initial permission is given in the UK , people are rightly paranoid about what is being built or could be built on land “in their back yards”. The level of permissions also means that once permission is granted for one kind of development, the land is often sold on again at a much higher price due to the granted permissions and the cycle begins again. Meanwhile local councils have little say over what happens on this land. With only policy documents to hand not regulatory documents, they can do little more than try and influence the path of development. By the time the land is developed what started as a proposed quaint shopping arcade could be a high-rise of student accommodation. This may not end up being true but the paranoia of this happening is in the mindset of the British neighbor, precisely because it has happened elsewhere. By giving local councils little-to-no power over proposed developments and encouraging the contracting of larger developers, the government make it increasingly difficult to oppose and change land use development once it’s in motion. Plus why give some land over to a group of 30 people wanting to build homes when you can falsely claim you will build 200 “affordable homes” on the same land, before saying none of them are affordable and that if they are to be affordable, the taxpayer needs to “contribute” out of their own pocket, pocketing a tidy profit for yourself. I’m looking at you Galliford Try.
This kind of corrupt development is rife in the UK and unless regulation surrounding the ability to own and develop land is changed, it won’t change.
The UK has a reputation for having the smallest and the densest housing in Europe. It also has the most capitalist and commercialised housing market. These two things are not a coincidence. In the UK there is a tendency to equate development with concreting over the countryside, when in fact residential areas where people self-build tend to be greener and more biodiverse. People don’t want to live in a concrete jungle, they want to live in what makes them happy. And all that stands between the UK and happiness is the freedom of choice. [Here are some examples of self-build housing on a range of budgets]
Young adults stand at the heart of this issue. In the 1990’s 65% of 25-34 year olds with a middling income owned a home. Now that number stands at 27% and it’s constantly decreasing. Studies by Santander show this isn’t due to the rate of mortgages, it’s mostly down to not having enough savings to pay for the deposit. In fact in London, the average rent is £289 more a month than a mortgage would be on a comparable home. That would be a saving of £3,500 a year if you were allowed to buy that house rather than just rent it. In areas of the UK without such ridiculous house prices the savings are lower, but they’re still savings. The amount needed for a deposit however is much more bank-breaking. In the last 20 years, the proportion of young adults that would need to spend over 6 months income for a 10% deposit has risen from 33% to 78% and isn’t decreasing. These sort of numbers show how disenfranchised with the housing market young people in the UK are becoming, but with no real alternative to renting or buying already-built-homes nothing is likely to change.
Some steps are being made in the right direction. The relaunch of England’s Homes and Communities Agency as Homes England in 2018 has given new and vital support to those looking to build themselves a home as well as financial help for new home-buyers in general. Working with them are a range of different local grassroots groups looking to change policy around land-use and development so that more people today and generations of tomorrow can have the choice to build a home rather than buying a house. One such group is the Bristol Housing Festival, which has helped bring together like-minded individuals and people of great knowledge on self-building such as TV’s Charlie luxton and Richard Bacon MP to talk and raise awareness of just how easy it can be; the latter being keen to create “a world where making the choice to build your own house, is a perfectly normal thing to do”. By holding expos which show off the newest technology and up-to-date prefabricated housing groups such as BHF are slowly but surely building a base of people asking, “so, why can’t I build my own home?”.
The real answer is because current laws won’t easily let you, if you live within the UK. But by raising awareness of the Right to build your own home and keeping an eye on advancements in the field we can hopefully someday, with the help of outspoken individuals and groups, get these restrictive laws changed to better reflect the needs of the nation. We need an end to the laughable “affordable housing” push that our government is on, which is little more than cronyism and pure profiteering. Local MPs can be questioned if housing developments are going up in your area, awareness can be raised. In a recent poll by Ipsos MORI nearly 30% of British adults showed an interest in building their own home compared to buying, with a further 1 in 7 saying they’d like to do or have done more research into self-building their home.
We may not have the answer just yet, but the writing is on the wall.